US engagement in the Middle East is critical to global security

Unlike his volatile president, Mike Pompeo understands the region better than most

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan arrive at Abu Dhabi International Airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Friday, Jan.  11, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)
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As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Abu Dhabi, the latest stop on his Middle Eastern tour, it was the words of Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador to the US, that particularly resonated. "America's engagement in the Middle East is critical to US and global security and prosperity," he said. The visit comes at a critical time in US-Middle Eastern relations and follows President Donald Trump's snap decision to withdraw American troops from Syria – one of many crises sparked by an unpredictable president.

Mr Pompeo – and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who visited Turkey and Israel – are hoping to arrest fears that the US is turning its back on the Middle East, tearing open a void that the likes of Russia and Iran are all too willing to fill. Given that Mr Trump often seems at odds with his senior advisers, those fears are justified. Yet, on many of the key challenges facing the region, from countering Iran to Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the US remains a vital partner. And the worst excesses of a volatile president are curbed somewhat by a secretary of state who understands the region better than most. It is evident in the fact that only non-essential equipment, rather than US troops, have so far left Syria.

In a biting speech in Cairo on Thursday, Mr Pompeo laid out a view of the region that will resonate in Gulf capitals. He vowed the US would help rebuild Iraq, defeat ISIS and press for a political solution to end Yemen’s war. Most importantly, he reaffirmed the administration’s awareness of the acute Iranian threat, vowing to uproot its soldiers and proxies in Syria and across the region. Strong words on the region’s pre-eminent threat will certainly hearten Arab nations.

Next month, dozens of nations, including Britain, France, Germany and GCC members, will meet in Warsaw under the stewardship of Mr Pompeo, to discuss the Iran. It will be followed by the inaugural Middle East Strategic Alliance meeting, which also includes the UAE. These summits indicate an enduring US commitment to the region, in spite of Mr Trump's bluster. "A strong, secure and economically vibrant Middle East is in our national interest, and it's in yours as well," Mr Pompeo said in Cairo. The close US-GCC relationship will undoubtedly endure.